Making America Sick

While grown ups contemplate health-care reform, the right sneezes "Socialism!" in our faces.

Last week was Covered the Uninsured Week, but I'm still going to write about it this week. The uninsured are used to waiting.

Whining from the insured about how long they will have to wait to see a doctor if everyone gets insured rings with dark irony in the ears of the uninsured, who may die waiting for medicine or a procedure. Fortunately, most Americans, insured or not, recognize that health care must be reformed. "Eek! Help! Socialism!" is a shrill and fading bray from a Republican fantasy land of false principles and cherished anecdotes.

In reality, the uninsured clog emergency rooms. This is much riskier than an extra 15 minutes in a doctor's waiting room before your name is called. Someone with the best insurance money can buy could die in a car accident in the extra minutes emergency-room staff needs to scrub up from having just diagnosed a coughing, snotty viral infection that never should have come to their facility. The distortion of priorities our health crisis has imposed on emergency rooms makes everyone's life more dangerous.

For every apocryphal tale of Canadian waiting lists, there are a dozen first-hand accounts of efficient, effective, and free medical treatment overseas. Countries who once admired us have flown far ahead in delivering medical security to their people. Medical research has largely been funded by American taxpayers, and if anyone deserves free health care, we do. Instead, our medical market is in disarray. Pharmaceutical corporations can barely keep up with their revenues while hospitals go broke.

One American in seven lacks health insurance, and its cost is growing eight times faster than income. Since health coverage is commonly linked to employment, losing a job can mean termination of health insurance. Millions of times over across this nation, a person diagnosed with chronic or costly medical problems earns their employer a hike in premiums. Illness limits performance, and soon the person loses their job. Now their condition "pre-exists," and they become uninsurable. Even when their health returns, employers shy away to avoid premium hikes. However many years they paid into the system, they become locked out, a burden on hospitals and the public treasury.

Our system is spitting out costs it was supposed to cover. The flaw is an unintended consequence of employer-based health care, which was an unintended residue of salary caps imposed during World War II. We do not have a health market built on free enterprise; it is a poorly assembled set of accidents.

Chinese fishermen invented insurance, and the very heart of any insurance policy—health, car, flood, whatever—is socialized risk. When you buy an insurance policy, you join a risk pool. The bigger these pools, the better they work. A national pool would yield the lowest premiums. Insurance is socialism, and socialized risk must be the currency of a functional health market.

Instead, we put the burden of insuring our health on America's businesses, a competitive disadvantage in global markets. Right-wing zealots have grown so ideological they are in conflict with their own ideology. They sing the virtues of free markets without checking whether the markets they praise are actually free.

Health markets are not free; no one wants to be a customer.

Anyone who pays into a risk pool has the right to stay in when the risk manifests. According to Physicians for a National Health Plan, universal coverage would lower overall health spending. The inefficiencies of the status quo are so bad, eliminating them more than covers added costs from treating the indigent and uninsurable. This is why defenders of the status quo must resort to shrill nonsense.

Treating communicable diseases is probably the highest yield investment government can make in our liberty and happiness. Single-celled organisms have killed more Americans than any terrorist or war. Low-wage laborers and immigrants the right vilifies are the people who pick, process and serve our food. Their health is everyone's concern.

Vacant obstructionism from the right is making everyone sick.